'There are people who want to take this away. I will die without it'

Cancer-afflicted rabbi fights for her life — and for Obamacare

From Rabbi Rachel Cowan’s YouTube plea to demonstrations in Washington, DC, angry Jews are banding together to say that healthcare is a God-given right

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Rabbi Rachel Cowan with her granddaughter. (Courtesy Lisa Cowan)
Rabbi Rachel Cowan with her granddaughter. (Courtesy Lisa Cowan)

NEW YORK — As a rabbi, teacher, parent and grandparent, silence is no longer an option for Rachel Cowan — especially when it comes to healthcare.

Cowan, former director of the Jewish Life and Values Program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York, was diagnosed with glioblastoma in February. She recently took to the internet to make a YouTube video urging US lawmakers to keep the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

“Last week I was in the hospital for treatment and I woke up in the middle of the night and thought ‘Oh my goodness there are people who want to take this away. I will die without it,’” she said in the video.

One of the most aggressive forms of cancer that starts in the brain, the average length of survival for someone with glioblastoma is 12 to 15 months. It is the same diagnosis Sen. John McCain received two weeks ago.

And while Cowan, who gets her healthcare through Medicare, was greatly relieved last Friday when the “skinny repeal” effort was defeated 49-51, she and others in the Jewish community said the issue is hardly resolved. President Donald Trump and several members of the House GOP are still pushing to repeal the ACA, commonly known as Obamacare.

“I think some of the messaging in the media is that healthcare has been ‘saved.’ But I also think people are aware enough to know the Republicans are not lying down. They know the attacks on health care are very much alive. As Donald Trump tweeted, there are ways to kill the ACA without repealing it,” said Carly Manes, legislative associate for the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW).

Indeed, the day after the vote Trump lambasted the Senate in a series of tweets: “3 Republicans and 48 Democrats let the American people down. As I said from the beginning, let ObamaCare implode, then deal. Watch!”

On Monday it was reported that Sen. Rand Paul, (R-KY) said Trump is considering taking executive action on health care.

Additionally, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price said he would consider using the agency’s regulatory authority to waive the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that all Americans buy coverage or pay a tax.

Carly Manes of the National Council for Jewish Women speaking at an Interfaith gathering in Washington, DC on Thursday, July 27, 2017. (Drew Konow/ Religious Institute)
Carly Manes of the National Council for Jewish Women speaking at an Interfaith gathering in Washington, DC on Thursday, July 27, 2017. (Drew Konow/ Religious Institute)

NCJW’s Manes said people must push their legislators to work in a bipartisan and transparent fashion to improve the existing legislation to ensure that health care is accessible and affordable to all.

During an interfaith gathering outside the Capitol last week Manes said the work of NCJW is informed by the Jewish value of kavod ha’briot, respect and dignity for all human beings.

“Rabbi Eliezer says ‘Let your neighbor’s dignity be precious to you as your own,’” she said during the gathering. “Each and every one of us is made in the image of God — b’tselem Elohim, which means that each one of us contains a divine spark and that we must endeavor to always treat every person with compassion and dignity.”

It is that dignity and access to care that Cowan wants legislators to preserve.

“One of the first things I did when I got my diagnosis was to do some research. I learned that 300,000 people have this cancer. I immediately felt a part of a community. I always feel I’m not alone. I don’t feel all isolated and alone and poor me. I decided if I had a chance to speak out I would,” Cowan said.

Her chance came when her daughter Lisa asked her if she would go in front of the camera and share her story. The idea was to send it to legislators across the country. She wants them to understand that people lives are in their hands.

“We thought it would help them have some empathy. I was so delighted I could do something. It made me feel so good,” Cowan said.

Talk to your congressman

While Congress might be on recess from Washington, they are not on recess from their constituents.

“This is an opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive. We can’t let our guard down,” said Rabbi Jonah D. Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. “For me, and other Jewish leaders, if we don’t show up, if we don’t call, then we are abdicating our moral obligation to not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.”

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of Reform’s Religious Action Center. (Courtesy RAC)
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of Reform’s Religious Action Center. (Courtesy RAC)

It’s a stand that goes hand in hand with Jewish tradition starting with Maimonides. The medieval Jewish scholar and physician said health care was one of the most important community services any city had to offer residents, Pesner said.

Although Cowan, who is now blind in her left eye, can no longer canvass neighborhoods or knock on legislators’ doors, she plans to remain politically involved — whether in the fight for health care, or local elections.

“My prime Jewish value is to choose life, to choose how we care for each other. We can’t always finish the fight but we can fight,” Cowan said.

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